Carlisle Import Nationals Preview: 1962 GAZ 21i Volga

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It feels kind of strange writing about this Volga in the context of a Carlisle Import Nationals preview, because this was the car’s last appearance as a major classic car event before it was flooded in Hurricane Sandy in late 2012. This GAZ was the first Russian passenger car to appear at Carlisle, where it received the Standard of Excellence Award for the quality of its restoration, and perhaps more than a decade will pass before another one does. Prior to appearing at Carlisle 2012, this well-restored 1962 GAZ 21i Volga appeared at the 2011 Greenwich Concours d’Elegance.

One of the most iconic Russian cars, the GAZ 21 was built in three “series” or facelifts from 1956 till 1970. Powered by a straight-4 engine making 75bhp, the GAZ 21 used a column-mounted 3-speed manual transmission, despite the first several hundred cars possessing a rare automatic transmission which is what these cars were originally designed for. The 21 was supposed to be the car for the emerging middle class during the 1950s and 1960s, but due to economic conditions and various other factors the GAZ 21 ended up being something quite different than a typical family car. The 21 remains one of the most popular classic cars in Russia today.

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Owning one of these, I was told, was an achievement even greater than owning a top of the line Cadillac in the west, because the GAZ’s price represented a far greater number of average annual salaries than a Cadillac did. The “easiest” way into GAZ ownership was to achieve a high enough position at work where the car came as a perk, in addition to a chauffeur. That position usually tended to be the head of some factory. Otherwise, you could just schlep 3 years worth of your annual salary to the nearest dealership waiting list at your place of employment. Another surefire way to get one quickly and cheaply was to win one in a lottery.

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This particular example was owned by Dmitri Shvetsov, who had this originally white example restored in Lithuania in 2005, and brought it into the US. The color of this example is an interesting issue in itself, as private citizens weren’t allowed to buy black cars (which I’m sure a lot of judges at Greenwich knew). Black GAZ 21s and other black ZiLs and GAZes were used only by government garages as limousines, or by state security, and the vast majority of those cars have since been used up and recycled. So virtually all black GAZ 21s that are in existence today have been repainted at some point.

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There are just 11 of these believed to be in US now that this example is gone, but from what I gather they don’t get out to classic events very often, perhaps because the owners know by now that the ratio of positive comments to negative or snarky comments is quite huge. And having spent just a few minutes or so around this car at Greenwich Concours, I became convinced that the owner must have had the greatest patience of virtually anyone there. For which he gets mad props, by the way. Some owners, I suspect, have found it easier just to tell people that its a customized Ford Mainline, and just watch them nod and say “That’s exactly what I thought it was. Nice Car!”

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While this totaled GAZ was ultimately sold at an insurance auction just a couple months ago, one of at least two cars from Greenwich Concours that were destroyed in the Hurricane Sandy flooding which we covered just a few months ago, the owner has already purchased another GAZ 21. The owner’s new car is a Series I GAZ 21 from 1957 that has a slightly different grille design. An even rarer example, the 1957 car is now wrapping up a 4-year restoration and is expected to arrive in the US in the spring of 2013. We look forward to seeing it soon, perhaps at the 2013 edition of the Carlisle Import Nationals!

[Images: Copyright 2013 Hooniverse/Jay Ramey]

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10 responses to “Carlisle Import Nationals Preview: 1962 GAZ 21i Volga”

  1. Synchromesh Avatar

    Nice car. Back in the 80s before the Iron Curtain fell these were still used as semi-daily drivers by some folks! They were quite tank like as I recall.

    1. Jay_Ramey Avatar

      Even today, believe it or not, some are daily or weekend drivers, like in the countryside.
      The funny thing is: few people actually drove it daily, most people I heard just took public transportation to work, and used their family car to make trips to their country houses, and only in the summers. So there aren't as many high mileage cars as you'd think, cause people used to do like a thousand miles a year, for 30 years straight.

      1. synchromesh Avatar

        Yeah, my dad racked up about 42K kilometers in 7 years on his Lada 2104 back in the day. He always took train to work. His car was parked in a special garage cooperative which was about a 30-40 minute walk from our house. He NEVER drove it in the winter (not once) always parking it in early fall and taking it out in May. That thing looked brand new when he sold it before we moved to US. For most people the car really was a luxury even if they owned one. Not the case anymore though.

  2. dukeisduke Avatar

    Does IAA not update their records? I'm wondering because the link to the flooded '62 still says "This vehicle is not ready for sale". Also, it looks like the owner removed stuff he wanted to keep, like the emblems, taillights, etc.

  3. dukeisduke Avatar

    Also, I'd never make snarky comments about a Volga. Cars don't know anything about politics – cars are cars.

    1. ˏ♂ˊ mzs zsm msz esq Avatar
      ˏ♂ˊ mzs zsm msz esq

      They sure don't but the owners can put a tacky CCCP sticker on the back. It would have been SU or LT on this car depending on year. And it would never be allowed on the bumper by the po-po. Sorry for being all BaTy, but those oval stickers are a nit of mine.

      1. Jay_Ramey Avatar

        @ dukeisduke: you wouldn't, but some of the stuff I heard made me wince (to put it mildly).
        Yeah, an SU badge would have been a correct detail to have. By the way, an original one's gotta be worth something today, unless there are repros.
        The license plate itself, I was told, hails from the Moscow region. Repainted, but correctly. Tons of them on eBay from a lot of regions.
        Meh, I don't have an opinion re the CCCP sticker, how many people out of 100 would know what it means anyway? The NY plate, however, perhaps prevents the owner from having to explain to 20 people per day what the car is : )

        1. ˏ♂ˊ mzs zsm msz esq Avatar
          ˏ♂ˊ mzs zsm msz esq

          I feel bad for the ill will that got directed at him. He likes Volgas, has a better one coming after his loss, good for him! I wonder if the plate makes people think it's a Volvo from Georgia or something.

          1. Jay_Ramey Avatar

            Hahah! Yeah, I thought Volga is that one city in Argentina, right?
            In terms of the "cultural impact" I am pretty sure the owner lives in Brooklyn, where there are half a dozen GAZ 21s and 24s, so I think he might actually be pretty popular there.
            Hopefully this was the only Volga that got flooded in the hurricane. This may be the first GAZ to be totaled in North America, I'm guessing.

    2. Felis_Concolor Avatar

      I was surprised at how many people told me I couldn't possibly have a Tatra engine in my Pinzgauer when I mentioned the origin of its high performance air cooled power plant. Those comments were nearly as commonplace as the knuckle-draggers and their "just shove a small block in there" interjections when I waxed eloquent about its high torque and light weight.